You’d never find two more opposite people than my husband, Harold, and me. But we were so in love and had so much in common, one big difference didn’t surface until after we’d been married for a while: I am a spender, he is a saver.
The confrontations were awful, making me physically sick. Of course I wanted to stop the fighting, but apparently not badly enough to change my behavior.
My solution was to take my spending activities underground with credit cards that he didn’t know about and a secret post office box for the statements. My deceit stopped the fighting and I was able to carry it off for a few years. But that made things much worse — in the end, I managed to rack up more than $100,000 in debt.
It’s been many years since I made a U-turn on the road to financial devastation. First I had to come clean to my husband, which was humiliating. But by the time I hit rock bottom emotionally, he’d already found out about my financial shenanigans because I could no longer afford to pay for the post office box.
Once I admitted my mistakes, my worst fear — that he would leave me — proved totally unfounded. Instead, we set a goal to repay all the debt, and did it one step at a time by saving, reducing our spending and sticking to a payback schedule. It took a long time (13 years!), but together we repaid it all and found financial intimacy in the process —the place where we can be completely honest about who we are without fear of being rejected.
What I didn’t realize until I began researching this article is how much I had been relying on money for personal fulfillment and how detrimental that was to my relationship. In a way, I was having an illicit affair with money.
“Money symbolizes a great deal about power and control, and the way a couple handles money is a reflection on how they view themselves as a couple,” explains Scott Stanley, codirector of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver and coauthor of "You Paid How Much for That?!: How to Win at Money Without Losing at Love." Los Angeles marriage therapist Steven C. Schoger agrees. “In one sense, the spender who is attracted to a saver is looking for a rescue,” he says. Problem is, the spender may come to resent the control and rail against the saver. But simply understanding the dynamic can go a long way toward resolving the problem. “When you accept that your spouse’s views about money are just different, it becomes easier to see that he may actually be trying to help you, not punish you,” Schoger says.
So if my story of overspending sounds a lot like what you and your husband are going through, follow these steps to stop the arguing and get your finances — and your marriage — on track.
Step 1: Turn off the TV and talk
It’s possible that you, like many married couples, talk about money only during a heated argument. Tonight, turn off the TV and sit down for a money talk. This first step may be the most difficult, but it will give you a foundation and mutual starting point.
If things are really tense in your relationship, mention the talk to your husband in the morning; that way he won’t feel ambushed later. Once you sit down, discuss where you are right now financially, where you hope to be, the fears, secrets, bills — all of it. How much debt do you have? Is there anything left in savings? Give each other uninterrupted time to speak, and make sure you listen to what the other person is saying.
“In order for couples to solve their problems, they both need to be heard,” says Jeffrey Dew, professor of family, consumer and human development at Utah State University. And while you’re talking, take a close look at the way each of you grew up.
“The way you deal with money has a lot to do with the way your parents handled money,” says Schoger. “Many couples fail to talk about their money beliefs and spending habits before they get married.” If your dad always worked, paid the bills and gave you everything you wanted, you may expect your husband to carry on the tradition. But your husband may come from a background where his parents worried every day because there was never enough money. His fervor to save may come from his determination never to put his own family in that position.
Knowing your histories can help you understand and empathize with where you’re each coming from. Sure, one of you may need to put the past to rest and just get over it, but verbalizing it can help you accomplish that.
Step 2: Create an agreement
“Arguing never solves a money issue because arguments always end with one person having to accommodate the other, leaving the former feeling angry and resentful,” says clinical psychologist and marriage counselor Willard Harley, Jr, author of "His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage." The way to stop the arguments is with what Harley calls a “Policy of Joint Agreement,” which you both write and sign. Basically, it says that no matter who earns what percentage of your income, you both will decide equally how to spend it.
The agreement should state that you will negotiate in a courteous way (no yelling or name-calling) every spending decision (yes, even the groceries and incidentals), with the goal of reaching a conclusion you can both be happy about. If you cannot agree on a certain item or how to spend a block of money, “you do not spend until you can find a solution you can both agree on enthusiastically — that’s the rule,” he says.
Easier said than done. “This requires a lot of negotiation,” says Harley. So how do you arrive at an outcome that works for both of you? Spend time brainstorming, and don’t correct each other when you hear a plan that you don’t like. You can voice your opinion when it’s your turn to speak. If your brainstorming fails to lead to a solution, take a break, then talk about it again at a different time.
Step 3: Get a spending plan
Now that you have your joint agreement in place, it’s time to face the numbers: your income and outgo. A spending plan is simply a way to write down and “pre-spend” your money on paper before you ever cash your paycheck, so you won’t spend more than you’re bringing in.
Over a few one-hour sessions, work your way through how much money you have and how it should be spent. Start by listing your fixed monthly expenses — the bills you have every month that you know you must pay (your mortgage, car payment, grocery expenses, credit-card debt, etc.). Subtract those from your income. Now deduct your variable expenses (cable TV, gym memberships). If you don’t know what you’re spending, take a month to carry around a notebook and pen, recording every penny that you spend. It won’t take long for the lights to come on about where your money goes and how you should cut back.
If you need help getting started, check out MySpendingPlan.com, a free website that can help you create spending categories. Or try You Need a Budget software, which has online classes and tutorials ($59.95; YouNeedaBudget.com). Free websites like Mint.com and the MoneyCenter at Yodlee.com can also help by pulling information from your online bank accounts so you can keep track of all your finances in one place. And Mvelopes, an online personal finance program, creates virtual envelopes for each of your expenses, withdrawing money as you spend it. ($7.90 to $13.20 per month; MVElopes.com).
Step 4: Take aim at debt
The more consumer debt — especially credit-card debt — you have, the greater the stress, which leads to more arguing and fights over other things that are not even related to money, reveals extensive research by The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Your goal is to stop adding to your debt. Together, put the credit cards away in a safe place so you’re not tempted to use them. Then create an aggressive plan to pay off the balances that remain. Try setting fixed amounts to pay off each month, paying the most on the card that has the highest interest. Or use the rapid debt-repayment plan calculator at my website, DebtProofLiving.com (membership is $29 per year), which creates a payoff plan for you to follow each month until you’re debt-free. You may be surprised at how quickly you can pay it off once you stop adding new purchases.
Step 5: Give yourselves a break
No matter how hard you try, getting and staying on track is difficult — and watching every penny can build tension. So negotiate a compromise like this one that Harley recommends: From now on, each of you gets $50 per week to do with as you please. No accountability, no reports. Agree that anything beyond that weekly allowance must first show up in the spending plan, and be subject to your policy of joint agreement.
“Successful negotiation creates a solution to every problem that benefits both spouses without hurting either one,” says Harley. By following these steps, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
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